Sunday, May 28, 2006


John Carter, Immortal

A lot of the reviews of Paragaea: A Planetary Romance cite Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom stories as an obvious inspiration. And they're not wrong. When writing Paragaea, I had sitting on my desk the first copy of A Princess of Mars that I ever bought, the Del Rey edition with the Michael Whelan cover, to remind me what flavor I was trying to capture. Which is not to say that my book is a pastiche in any way--I couldn't write like Burroughs if I tried--but that I was trying to capture a certain animating spirit that seems to drive so much of what ERB wrote.

In any event, the reviews have reminded me of the one aspect of the Barsoom stories that continues to puzzle me. It comes early in A Princess of Mars. After a foreword by "Edgar Rice Burroughs," in which he describes his memories of and later meeting with his "Uncle Jack," John Carter's own first person narrative begins with the following paragraph:

"I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality."
I stumbled over that bit when I first read it, two and a half decades ago, and I still stumble over it now. If you've ever read the Barsoom stories, you know that this odd little tidbit about John Carter is never mentioned again. He is an amnesiac immortal! Or if not immortal, at least arbitrarily long-lived. What the hell is that about?!

There have been a lot of fan opinions floated over the years, to explain who and what John Carter is. Philip Jose Farmer advanced the theory that Carter was Norman of Torn, the hero of ERB's Outlaw of Torn. Peter Coogan contends that Carter is Phra the Phoenician, from Edwin Lester Arnold's novel of the same name. Both are fine ideas, and fun speculations. But what could Burroughs himself had intended?

So far as I know, there's no record of what ERB had in mind when he included this odd aspect in Carter's character. But then, I'm hardly a Burroughs scholar. Am I wrong? Is the answer hidden somewhere, in ERB's notes and letters? Does anyone know?

I believe Carter speculates in one of the novels that he may have been born before in Mars history, reincarnated to Earth. Either way, the line "from which there is no resurrection" strikes me as a very bold dig on Christianity and their ideas of the "resurrection of the body" for 1911. And his description of Carter's transition from Earth to Mars is textbook astral projection.
I've been swapping emails with Jess on this subject, actually. Jess contends that "Burroughs was following the model of previous reincarnation fantasy/serial incarnator heroes, like Phra and George Griffith's Valdar the Oft-Born, but with the added gloss of
amnesia to lend Carter a certain mystery." It's also been long established that Burroughs was exposed to the Theosophistic nonsense of Madame Blavatsky, not only in terms of the various races of Mars, but likely the astral projection you mention, as well. I've always been of the opinion that Burroughs was a very instinctive writer, and just sort of crammed in anything that came to hand and seemed to fit the story he was telling. And as "A Princess of Mars" (or, as I guess it originally was titled, "Under the Moons of Mars") was his first work of fiction, it is likely the most instinctive of everything he wrote. So I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that he stitched up his first novel from bits borrowed from any number of different things he read, including those featuring reincarnated heroes, and astral projection, and strange races of various unlikely hues.
Here's an interesting article.
Ah! The Theosophical stuff--excellent point, Chris, I should have remembered that, too.
Thanks for the tip, Gabe! I don't agree with all of that writer's rationalization, but there's some interesting stuff in his argument.
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